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Will the pandemic improve care home whistleblowing culture?

Protect’s Head of Policy, Andrew Pepper-Parsons features in the latest issue of Care Markets magazine, discussing how Covid-19 has affected the sector.

Protect, the UK whistleblowing charity, helps whistleblowers safely raise concerns about wrongdoing, abuse or poor practice. We run an advice line where whistleblowers can call us for free confidential advice about how to raise their concern. We also work with organisations to help them create strong, accessible whistleblowing cultures, and we carry out training, consultancy and organisational reviews when things have gone badly wrong.

In terms of Covid-19, our advice line has been extremely busy with record high call levels, exceeding our annual 3,000 calls. Since lockdown, 44% of our care cases have been on issues from a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) to worries about having to work when the person should be self-isolating. We’ve even had calls about care home staff being refused to bring in their own PPE. Sadly, we’ve also heard from whistleblowers who have been victimised or dismissed when they raised their concerns with their employers.

Prior to lockdown, calls from care providers made up around 11% of calls, and we’ve seen a slight rise. When a whistleblowing story features prominently in the media, as we saw with the #Metoo movement and as we have seen in the pandemic itself with the PPE crisis, it can encourage more people to speak up. But people are also scared for their job security and livelihoods so may choose to stay silent about concerns. It is vital employers reassure staff, they encourage speaking up and do not victimise staff for doing so.

If calls to our advice line are a snap-shot of the wider picture in the care sector, then it appears that a great many care homes have a poor, or worse, a non-existent whistleblowing culture. Covid-19 has shone a light on the importance of key workers who have all continued to work during the pandemic. NHS and care workers have rightly been called heroes for putting their own lives at risk to care for the sick and elderly residents in care and nursing homes.

I hope the pandemic shines a light on the importance of healthy whistleblowing policies and processes in the care sector and why it is vital to have in place a healthy ‘speak up and listen up’ culture for care staff. Staff are the eyes and ears of an organisation and can act as an early warning system of potential risk or malpractice. Staff who feel comfortable raising a concern, or whistleblowing, may possibly save lives or complex litigation down the line. But care staff need to feel supported and know they will be listened to. At Protect, in addition to our advice line, we support organisations to put in place best practice arrangements and help train those who handle whistleblowing matters. We do work with some care providers but would like to work with many more. It seems many care providers have not yet recognised the value of whistleblowing – I really hope the pandemic changes that and more operators will come to see its value too.

This blog is published in Care Markets, June 2020